I haven’t found any studies on the psychophysiological effects of fire, but I think they are analogous to those of some forms of media, especially television. At base, they both involve flickering light & sudden sound phenomena. I speculate that natural selection may have played a role in a continuity of response we may see for both of them (pending my ongoing research)–or they may just involve a similar response exapted from other purposes (I know, I’m very committal).
Research reviewed by Robert Kubey & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Scientific American (2002) indicates that people report feeling relaxed & passive when watching TV. Analyses of EEG alpha wave production indicate less mental stimulation while watching television compared to reading. The feeling of relaxation ends when the TV is turned off, but there are persistence feelings of passivity & lowered alertness.
Participants in media research suggest that television is mesmerizing:
If a television is on, I just can’t keep my eyes off it.
I don’t want to watch as much as I do, but I can’t help it.
I feel hypnotized when I watch television.
Even television researchers like Percy Tannenbaum are not immune:
Among life’s more embarrassing moments have been countless occasions when I am engaged in conversation in a room while a TV set is on, & I cannot for the life of me stop from periodically glancing over to the screen. This occurs not only during dull conversations but during reasonably interesting ones just as well.
Byron Reeves & Esther Thorson found that the formal features of television activate orienting response. The formal features are the cuts, edits, zooms, pans, & sudden noises–i.e., the flickering light & sudden sounds. Orienting response, as first described by Pavlov, is our evolved response to sudden or novel stimuli. According to Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, “it is part of our evolutionary heritage, a built-in sensitivity to movement & potential predatory threats.” Orienting reactions involve dilation of blood vessels to the brain, constriction of vessels to major muscle groups, slowing of heart, & alpha-wave blocking. Frequency of edits up to a point was found to improve memory of a scene, perhaps because the repeated stimulation of orienting response focuses attention, but too many edits has the opposite effect, overloading the system.
According to a 2009 review by Annie Lang, Robert Potter, & Paul Bolls, (“Where Psychophysiology Meets the Media: Taking the Effects Out of Mass Media Research,” from Bryant & Oliver’s edited volume Media Effects: Advances in Theory & Methods), alpha blocking is seen associated with sudden or novel stimuli in media & has been interpreted as indicative of increased attention. Attention is related to the choice of what to pay attention to in an environment, which involves short-term or phasic action, & the longer-term or tonic effort to expend on the processing the stimulus selected for attention. The form features of television (particularly good children’s television) seems to be particularly good at galvanizing phasic & tonic attention while utilizing minimal cognitive resources.
Lang et al. report that heart rate decreases for 4-6 seconds after an orienting response. These decreases in heart rate are also associated with increased attention. Emotional & engrossing media tend to stimulate both the parasympathetic & sympathetic nervous systems, which dually control heart rate. Parasympathetic activation “is associated with attention to external stimuli & with overall attention & vigilance,” which decelerates the heart. Sympathetic activation is associated with arousal & heart rate accleration. The dominant message to the brain will prevail, which, unless the level of arousal is particularly high, is usually the attentional system, resulting in a deceleration of heart rate.
Yet Lang & her colleagues caution against effects-focused research. The effects of media are embodied & can’t be localized to one instantiation, aspect, or context, but have cumulative influences over a lifetime. While previous research looked for specific changes resulting from media exposure, the current paradigm of research examines the ongoing psychophysiological responses to the structure, content, emotional valence, intensity, & context of the medium. In other words, focus should be on “examining the real-time cognition processing.”
The same caution should be born in mind when considering the influence of fire. As pointed out by Heath Kinzer, a graduate student in our biocultural medical anthropology program who grew up camping & relaxing by fireside, fires may elicit positive associations for some people because of good memories of campfires or a love for camping. Conversely, a house fire or traumatic memory of one may elicit a very negative reaction. Thus, the motivated cognition systems must play some role in the psychophysiological influences of fire. The motivated cognition systems comprise the appetitive & aversive systems, which involve activation of approach & avoidance functions, respectively. In media studies, both positive & neutral material seems to activate the appetitive system more. Lang & colleagues suggest “this makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, since [the appetitive system] encourages exploratory behavior, such as leaving the nest to search for mates and food.” Increases in message or stimulus intensity, however, is associated with increased activation of the aversive system.
What this indicates to me is that we’ve only just begun our study of the influences of fire. There are numerous paradigms within media studies that can provide avenues of future research…I see some collaborations with media researchers in my future (this is an unsubtle suggestion–please contact me, media researchers!).